Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency
Iranian Health Ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour

At least 210 Iranians have died of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, according to Health Ministry sources who spoke with BBC Persian on Friday.

Health experts quoted by The New York Times estimated the number of infections could be more than a thousand.

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The victims are located mostly in the holy city of Qom, where the virus first emerged on Feb. 19, and in the capital, Tehran, the BBC reported.

Iran’s Health Ministry spokesperson, Kianoush Jahanpour, vigorously disputed the death toll figure, claiming only 34 people had died and 245 more were infected. He accused the BBC of spreading lies.

On Saturday, Jahanpour gave radically different figures, at least with speaking to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), explaining that over the past 24 hours, 205 more people had been confirmed to have contracted the virus, “bringing the total number of cases to 593,” according to a report by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.

This past week cases appeared in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. All involved people who had visited Iran.

To understand the level of fear in Iran: Friday prayers at the mosques in Tehran and 22 other cities were canceled, and schools and universities have been closed until the end of the Iranian year on March 21.

Iranian Vice President Sick with COVID-19
One of the most senior figures in Iran and the highest-ranking woman in the government has contracted the coronavirus.

President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy for women’s affairs, Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, has become the seventh Iranian official to test positive for the virus.

Known as “Mary” during the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis, Ebtekar was the revolutionary spokesperson for the captors of the 52 Americans who were held at the US Embassy in Iran.

Today one of four vice presidents, she sits just a few seats away from Rouhani at the government cabinet meetings. She is now quarantined at her home.

In addition to Ebtekar, the following high-ranking government officials are now infected:

• Mojtaba Zolnour, a member of Parliament from Qom and head of Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee;
• Mahmoud Sadeghi, an outspoken member of Parliament from Tehran;
• Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister who had been leading the effort to contain the coronavirus;
• Morteza Rahmanzadeh, the mayor of a Tehran district;
• Dr. Mohamad Reza Ghadir, head of coronavirus management in Qom and director of the city’s state medical university, and
• Hadi Khosroshahi, 81, a prominent cleric and former ambassador to the Vatican, deceased.

In addition, a popular professional female Iranian soccer player has also died from the virus. Elham Sheikhi was in her early twenties.

Iran Rejects US Offer of Assistance
The US made an offer of assistance last week conveyed through the government of Switzerland, but the offer was rejected.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi dismissed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks on Washington’s offer to help Tehran in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as hypocritical and deceitful propaganda. In a statement late Friday, Mousavi deplored the offer to help the Islamic Republic as “a hypocritical and political move to deceive the world’s public opinion”.

But Pompeo said that America’s offer to help “underscores our ongoing commitment to address health crises and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

He also asked Iran to provide full information about the true situation in the country. There are suspicions that Iran is being less than honest about its data, which could lead to deadly consequences for others around the globe.

A parliamentarian in Qom has already accused the government of a cover up.

“The United States calls on Iran to cooperate fully and transparently with international aid and health organizations. We will continue to work closely with countries in the region to help address unmet needs in response to the virus,” Pompeo said.

The US, he noted, opened sanctions relief for medical and humanitarian aid.

“Persons interested in providing support to the Iranian people should note that certain donations to Iran intended to relieve human suffering, including the donation of medicine, are exempt from US sanctions,” he added.

“In addition, the United States maintains broad exceptions and authorizations to its sanctions for the commercial export of food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products to Iran. In support of those exceptions and authorizations, the US Department of the Treasury and the Government of Switzerland recently announced the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA).

“Supporting the Iranian people is and will remain among our top priorities,” Pompeo said.

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